“Whiteness” and The Splitting of the Evangelical Mind

“Whiteness” and The Splitting of the Evangelical Mind May 19, 2022

I am digressing from a series of posts to discuss something I think is rather obvious about the Church in America today but which may need some additional pointing out. There seems to be a very real and serious bifurcation of Christian intellectual activity into two broad camps. This bifurcation mirrors a similar division in secular scholarship, and is, in fact, a result of it. Further, this bifurcation seems to be causing an equal amount of division among professing Christians as it has caused in non-Christian pockets of society. It is creating a split in the Evangelical mind.

The Philosophical Split of the 19th century

This divisive bifurcation of Christian thought can roughly, and I mean roughly, be understood as a split between two philosophical modes of thought and activity. These two modes of philosophizing about the world emerged in the late 19th century. One of them, the analytic tradition, carried on the main project of the Enlightenment, seeking out universal maxims and canons of truth through the framework of mathematics and new axioms of logic. This analytic tradition began with the German mathematician Gottlob Frege, but really took hold in England and America with philosophers like Betrand Russell, W.V.O. Quine, Rudolph Carnap, A.J. Ayers, and Saul Kripke. Most of these thinkers were mathematicians and logicians seeking to revise and update classical modes of philosophy, most notoriously perhaps, classical metaphysics, given the conclusions of modern science.

The other tradition also began in Germany with Edmund Husserl, the father of phenomenology, and carried on what we might call the Hegelian tradition. Hegel, having critiqued Immanuel Kant in such a way as to eliminate the “noumena” completely from his philosophical system, saw all of reality as embedded in historical processes and social perspectives–a dynamic system of thinking that constantly reshapes our concepts of the world and, as such, our concepts of ourselves. This Hegelian “historicism” was adapted by Marx to fit his immanent materialism. It was then appropriated and disseminated by cultural Marxists like Antonio Gramsci, the Frankfurt School philosophers, and later French existentialists like Sartre, Foucault, de Beauvoir and Derrida.

Historically speaking, the first camp of philosophy stayed within the academic domain of philosophy. For three or four generations it dominated the academy in the English-speaking world, being seen as the handmaiden of the natural sciences. Analytic philosophy existed as a discipline designed to support modern science by systematizing scientific projects using mathematical reasoning and logic, and developing an analytic language apt to articulate the objective reality science could, and did, discover.

The second camp of philosophy, however, did not stay in the philosophy departments in America. Instead it spawned academic disciplines of its own. Most prominent was the discipline of Sociology with its various branches: e.g, gender studies, race studies, ethnic studies, etc.  This further migrated into other disciplines such as literary theory, economics, psychology and history. In other words, the academic arenas where the second kind of philosophy thrived, were those arenas that philosophers from the first camp tend to call “the soft sciences.” They are also the “sciences” that analytic philosophers like A.J. Ayers or Hilary Putnam believed to be woefully unsuccessful or inadequate to properly describe reality or offer useful tools for understanding human existence.

Further, the second camp did not attempt to carry on the tradition of the Enlightenment. In fact one of the core principles of the second camp was its highly critical attitude toward any appeal to universal axioms of logic or the a-historical nature of reason. Society and its life-processes (Horkheimer) became the sole arena of human investigation, and that arena was being constantly rebuilt. The inner life of the individual was elevated to primary concern, and the dynamics of social interaction could not be approached or evaluated using mathematics or logic. This neo-Hegelian view, together with Einstein’s theories of relativity, wound up changing the western view of science itself. Western science was no longer able to claim the mantle of untainted objectivity, even if it still claimed victory.

In sum, both of these camps started in Germany. The first dominated the English-speaking world of philosophy for several generations. The other was developed mainly in Germany and France and took a foothold in the sociology, economics, history and literary theory departments in America’s elite institutions. The differences between these two approaches and modes of philosophizing is significant. The first is interested primarily in the acquisition of greater, or more precise, knowledge of the objective world through the use of mathematics and logic to support the hard sciences (physics, chemistry, and, to some degree, biology). The second is concerned with the inner, existential experiences of human persons in society and how those experiences shape, influence or even “construct” the project that the first group claims to be carrying out.

The Split in Christian Thought

While this is admittedly a very broad generalization, I still believe this framework for seeing the current division in Christianity is helpful. It can act as a starting point for further theological reflection and investigation into the Church’s current sitz im Leben.

My thesis is, therefore, that the Evangelical mind in America is split in virtue of competing allegiances to two very different modes of viewing the world: the analytic and the existential. Of course, no single, concrete individual is purely devoted to one or the other of these approaches. However, to use a secular analogy, we might imagine someone like Richard Dawkins being very far to the right on one end of a spectrum, with someone like Robin DiAngelo being very far to the left. The analogy seems apt, in that both act as popularizers and apologists for their particular camp. One could only imagine what a conversation between the two might look like: Dawkins becoming increasingly infuriated as DiAngelo incessantly charges him with the typical, racist reasoning “of a white, dominant male” as he tries to explain some apparent fact of evolutionary science.

Thus, a rift occurs within a certain cultural space when particular, influential individuals or groups begin to lean in one direction more than in the other. Finally, when the culture as a corporate whole begins to lean in one direction over the other, then this cultural leaning influences the direction toward which the Church will also find itself leaning. Ideally, the Church should always be in the position to resist both poles, since leaning too far in either direction will in some way inevitably compromise the Gospel.

In the 1940’s and 1950’s, for example, we might have said that the analytic mode of philosophy had won out in American culture. As such, the Church also leaned in this direction. Becoming increasingly analytic in the throes of modernism, the Church sought to defend metaphysical and moral claims on a common field of battle: the battlefield of universal reason. What needed to happen, and what did happen, was an analytic mode of doing theology and Christian philosophy emerged in order to fend off  the more devastating critiques of religion being made by science-oriented, analytic philosophers– most of whom were atheist materialists (like Russell, Ayer, Quine and their later popularizers: Hitchens, Dawkins and Krauss).

Thus, an analytic tradition of Christian philosophy rose up to meet this challenge. Its most famed “apologists” are familiar to most Evangelical seminary students. Its first generation consisted of scholars like Richard Swinburne, Alvin Plantinga, William Alston and Nicholas Wolterstorff. People like William Lane Craig, J.P. Moreland, Brian Leftow and Peter Van Inwagen followed this first generation and now there is a small, but rapidly growing, subculture of Christian analytic philosophy and theology lead by the likes of Alexander Pruss, Robert Koons and Daniel Bonevac.

However, at the same time Anglophone, analytic philosophy was ascending, German and French existentialism were migrating through the other academic departments mentioned above. While analytic philosophers duked it out over truth claims in the thin air of abstract reasoning and logical argumentation, young minds, my own included, were being filled with theories about the ambiguity of truth, the primacy of personal experience and the constant need for social change. The “historicist” approach to reality was creeping in through these other disciplines in the 1980’s and 90’s and has now, so it seems, gained ascendancy in American society.

The main proponents of this model: Adorno, Fromm, Marcuse, Foucault, Derrida, were not taken seriously by analytic philosophers. Or, to make a more neutral statement, the two camps never, or only rarely, engaged with one another. Probably a bit of both is true. And so there were very few Christian philosophers who bothered to respond to this second mode of philosophizing (although obviously there were some, Charles Taylor most notably).

As such, an entire generation of Christian historians, sociologists, economists and psychologists seem to have found their intellectual influence in these existentialists and critical theorists, as opposed to their analytic counterparts. But, without any real response to these existentialists, themselves all atheistic materialists, from Christian philosophers, these Christian historians, sociologists, economists and psychologists assumed that such giants like Foucault, Derrida, Marcuse or de Beauvoir were basically right in their views about history and culture. Many of these, for example this Christian historian, now seem to write history qua critical theorist, and not necessarily qua historical Christian or even as historical scientist.

What is “Whiteness” Really?

So far I have told a pretty general story. There were two, very different modes of philosophy that emerged in the 19th century. One mode stayed in the philosophy departments. It dominated the English-speaking world, being seen as the handmaiden for the natural sciences, that is, the hard sciences. The second mode developed in the German and French speaking West and migrated into American culture through sociology, history and psychology departments. Both modes of thinking are very different and, depending in which direction one is influenced, will affect how one sees the Christian faith.

On the analytic mode, one will tend to see Christianity as a series of historic claims that should be defended using reason and rigorous logical argumentation. Some claims may need to be jettisoned, like a young Earth, if they cannot be rigorously defended given this particular mode of thinking. However, the propositions of the Bible and the claims of the early church will, for the most part, be understood as necessary components of the Christian faith, objective claims that can be tested in the light of reason and a sufficient evidentiary database.

On the existentialist mode, however, historic Christian claims need not be defended. In fact many of them should not be defended. Instead, given the overarching idea of “historicism,” and the primacy of personal or group experience, historic Christian claims probably need to be deconstructed. They must be critiqued and adapted to fit the current manifestation of culture. For Christianity to make sense today, it must be reconstructed to fit the existential needs contemporary with current society. Where and how we update Christianity doesn’t depend on reason though, or on the universal and binding claims of certain propositions. It relies on lived experience. As such, argumentation using logic and evidence is not the right method for re-evangelizing the West. Instead it is the telling of stories that matters, and that regardless of how factually accurate the stories may be. Usually a semblance of facticity will do the job.

So why bring up the term “Whiteness” in this context? Because I believe that “Whiteness” is, in essence, a term that relates far more to this fundamental conflict between two modes of thinking than it relates to anything “racial.” Before I give a working definition of “Whiteness,” let me again name these two competing camps of philosophy: the analytic and the existential. Let me also re-emphasize their origins: both modes of philosophy were developed in Europe by ethnically “white” males and then brought into the United States through different academic branches during the course of the 20th century.

Given this, here is my working definition of “Whiteness”: Whiteness is what the one camp of mostly white, male European philosophers (the existentialists) had against the other camp of mostly white, male European philosophers (the analytical). Another way of putting this is: “Whiteness” is a purely rhetorical term, a useful fiction that picks out those central premises and presuppositions of analytic philosophy which existentialist philosophers aim to criticize and ultimately undermine.

Eurocentricity and the Analytic Tradition

This critique of the analytic tradition by the existentialist, is made fairly explicit in the writings of one critical race theorists, Kenneth B. Nunn, who tries to define “Eurocentric” thought in very Eurocentric terms:

European culture is materialistic in both the ontological sense that the nature of reality is perceived in material terms and in the sociological/axiological sense that the acquisition of objects is the primary social goal.

Eurocentricity, then, may be briefly defined as a conceptual system or worldview that is grounded in materialism and that exhibits an epistemology, aesthetics and ethos based in material values. Eurocentricity consists of those values, attributes and modes of behavior that are at the core of European-derived cultures….The Eurocentric world-view produces a culture of acquisition and narcissism.

The materialistic paradigm of Eurocentric societies produces certain cultural determinate, which shape and direct all social productions within the culture. These cultural determinates manifest themselves mainly the areas of thought structuring and processing and include epistemological values and logic. [emphasis added]

Nunn goes on to highlight 7 features of thought that he considers to be unique to “European” thought, and that make European culture one of “narcissism,” “dominance” and “control”:

  1. dichotomous (either/or) reasoning,
  2. the employment of hierarchies,
  3. analytic thought,
  4. Objectification,
  5. Abstraction,
  6. Extreme Rationalism, and
  7. Desacralization

Given this list, of which numbers 1,3,4,5 and 6 are fundamentally related, it is fairly safe to say that Nunn believes that the European tradition, or “Whiteness,” just is the analytic tradition of Anglo-American philosophy. Whether this is explicit in Nunn’s mind or not, that he is against a certain type of European philosophy, his critique of these modes of thought, these “thought structures,” certainly makes it sound that way.

However, much of the apparatus Nunn uses to criticize Anglo-American analytic philosophy does not come from traditional African philosophy or central Asian Islamic or Eastern Asian philosophy (although maybe some does). Instead, it seems Nunn has gleaned much of his own critical framework from other white Europeans. He likely received his tools from many of the existentialists mentioned above or the schools of social thought they spawned. Nunn himself, being a western-educated scholar, is not exempt from western modes of thought. He is not liberated from the “conceptual worldview” of the West. He has simply opted for one strain of western thought over another.

I believe Nunn to be fairly representative of most critical race theorists who critique the western, analytic tradition and its “Whiteness.” I have little doubt reading the likes of Mari Matsuda, Angela Harris, Kimberlee Crenshaw or Richard Delgado, that underlying all their protests against “Whiteness” is, at bottom, a more fundamental critique of analytic modes of thought and the method of making judgments that those modes presume. Labelling this  critique, a critique of “Whiteness,” really is little more than a rhetorical device. It provides emotional appeal for the existentialist tradition over the analytic one. After all, there is no logical connection between cognitive features like “dichotomous reasoning,” “rationalization” or “abstraction” and the practice of slavery or Jim Crowe.

Unfortunately, the analytic tradition, until now, has had little to no response to that appeal to emotion. Of course given the nature of analytic philosophy, how could it? And so today, we see people who are not religious believers, yet who are adherents to an analytic tradition, either being pressured by accusations of “Whiteness” or even getting fired on account of their exemplifying it (regardless of their actual ethnic identity).

Where the Christian Conflict Really Lies

This is admittedly a very hasty analysis of intellectual culture in America. However, if it has any validity, then where we should expect to see conflict in the church is between Christians who have been educated in philosophy and/or the natural, or hard, sciences, and those who have made their academic way through the sociology, literary theory and history departments of the last 30 or 40 years.

While we may not see this conflict directly, unless we are looking, we will nevertheless see it play out within the churches that are influenced in either direction by the opposing scholars. The larger the church, or the more “high-churchy” feel a church has, the more we will see those churches lean in one direction or the other. Of course with the non-stop, virtual spread of information, this process will increase with a speed never before seen in the life of the Church and even reach the smaller congregations.

We see subtle evidence of this conflict, for example, in the preface to the 2nd edition of Stuart C. Hackett’s classic apologetical work, The Resurrection of Theism. Hackett, the mentor of the popular analytic philosopher of religion, William Lane Craig, writes this in the preface of the 1982 edition of his book, 30 years after its original publication:

Buoyed by an unbridled youthful enthusiasm, I wrote with a vibrant optimism which tended to assume that virtually the only barrier between truth and commitment was the mist of unclear insight which hampered adequate understanding; and I therefore proceeded as if the only serious hindrances to a person’s accurate philosophical judgment were those which diligent investigation could ultimately recognize and disarm. Over the years [1952-1982] I have become increasingly and even painfully aware of the complexity of those varied factors which unwittingly condition a man’s understanding: I still believe in the ideal of rational objectivity, but I now see it as a far more difficult goal to approximate, so that if I were writing the book today I would come to all the same conclusions, though I would claim many of them with a more guarded confidence.

Hackett’s “painful” change of heart about the means by which one might compel another person to change their thinking is indicative of the cultural shift that occurred between the height of modernism and the ascendency of existentialism. Yet Hackett sought the balance between the new sociology and the ideal of rational objectivity. Many today, most perhaps, will likely not have the acumen or sensitivity to do that, falling either heads over heels for social theory and change, or digging their heels in so hard that they cannot bridge the gap between the relevance of truth and the complexity of human emotions.

In sum, those who fall into the former camp will gain followers in the Church. So too will those who fall into the latter. The former will be more inclined to use instrumental reason, the kind of reasoning criticized by Kenneth Nunn, to come to conclusions about Christian doctrine and practice. They will hold more closely to traditional modes of thought as found in the early Church fathers like Augustine, or in the medieval theologians like Aquinas. The reason for this will be their commitment to the universal nature of truth and the capacity of reason to ascertain it. Because of this commitment, an additional commitment to persist in the defense of earlier metaphysical and moral judgements of the Church will follow naturally. These Christians will be conveniently called “conservative.”

Those Christians who fall into the latter group will be more inclined to elevate personal experience over reason to come to their conclusions. They will be more likely to play faster and looser with the historic doctrines of the Church and its prior practices. For them, as history and society change so too does reason, the nature of truth, and, consequently, the historically contingent metaphysical and moral claims of the Christian “revelation” (whatever that might mean). The Church’s past will be more something to lament than to recapture, or something to “revision” and “retell” as opposed to simply state. These shall be called “progressives.”

Finally, I suppose that if these latter Christians are female, they will tend to use the rhetoric of “male hegemony” or “toxicity” to undermine the analytic project of their fellow Christians. Arguing through an appeal to emotion (pathos), as opposed to an appeal the logical center of the person (logos), the aim will be to undermine earlier “ideologies” of the Church–ones that couldn’t possibly belong to today’s Gospel.

In addition, if those from the latter camp are persons of color, the tendency might be to use the rhetoric of “whiteness” to undermine that same, analytic project and the same historic dogmas. Of course the fact of either of these progressive Christians being female or a person of color is completely irrelevant to the overall project. The goal for both, however, will be progressive changes to the Christian tradition itself. In their eyes, perhaps, this project consists of nothing less than perfecting the Christian message given the “new” data from social philosophy itself.

 

 

 

 

 

About Anthony Costello
Born and raised on the South Side of Chicago to a devout and loving Roman Catholic family, I fell away from my childhood faith as a young man. For years I lived a life of my own design-- a life of sin. But, at the age of 34, while serving in the United States Army, I set foot in my first Evangelical church. Hearing the Gospel preached, as if for the first time, I had a powerful, reality-altering experience of Jesus Christ. That day, He called me to Himself and to His service, and I have walked with Him ever since. You can read more about the author here.

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